Charleston Victims Sue FBI Over Shooting
Families of the nine victims killed in the Charleston church shooting are now suing the FBI. The lawsuit centers around the FBI’s background check database failure to flag Dylann Roof as being ineligible to purchase a firearm.
Washington Post reports:
The lawsuit comes a year after the mass shooting sent shock waves through the country. Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old high school dropout, is charged with opening fire and killing nine people during a prayer meeting at the historic African American church. Prosecutors say the massacre was racially motivated.
In the days following the shooting, FBI Director James B. Comey said in a remarkable disclosure that Roof shouldn’t have been able to buy the gun. As The Washington Post story noted then:
Roof had been arrested for possession of narcotics in February, a charge that alone did not disqualify him from buying a gun. But Comey said Roof’s subsequent admission of the drug crime would have triggered an automatic rejection of his gun purchase if the information had been properly recorded in criminal-record and background-check databases.
Authorities have said that a clerk’s mistake in how Roof’s arrest was listed prevented the FBI examiner for his background check from seeing it. And because of that delay during the background check, once the three-day mandatory waiting period for gun purchases expired, Roof was able to buy the .45-caliber Glock handgun.
“We are all sick this happened,” FBI director Comey said at the time. “We wish we could turn back time.”
In one of the multiple lawsuits filed Thursday, the victims’ families said, “If the gun sale was denied as required, it would have prevented the foreseeable harm to those people.”
Lawyer Andrew Savage said, “The victims and families hope that by bringing these actions, they can shine a very bright light on these shortcomings and prevent other individuals, families and communities from dealing with unfathomable and preventable loss and injury.”
Savage is representing three survivors of the attack as well as the relatives of five victims.
“It’s beyond a clerical error,” said S. Randolph Hood, an attorney for the wife of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the shooting. If the federal government is going to be in control of who is allowed to buy guns, he said, “they need to do it right.”
Roof’s federal trial is scheduled to begin in November; his state trial is set for later this year, but is likely to be rescheduled. He faces the death penalty in both cases.
This lawsuit doesn’t appear to have any legs to stand on. It ignores how the FBI database actually works. Law enforcement databases are only as good as the information that is entered into the database. Generally, these databases pull information from thousand of sources which are lax in the way that they report; this is why crime statistics aren’t reliable.
Criminals get entered into the FBI criminal history database when they are fingerprinted after being arrested. If a criminal is not fingerprinted, their arrest may not even make it into the database. After a person’s arrest is entered into the database, the court has to update the FBI with the disposition of the case. For example, if somebody was arrested and then found to be not guilty, then the not guilty disposition should be sent to the FBI.
However, it’s common for the disposition to never be reported, or to be reported inaccurately. If somebody was arrested on multiple charges, then it’s also common to not receive a disposition on each charge.
The thousands of clerks who enter this information have to make sure that they enter in complicated case dispositions correctly, or the information in the FBI database isn’t reliable. The fact is that most dispositions are not reported or updated accurately. This is the fault of each individual jurisdiction that reports to the FBI; it’s not the FBI’s fault.
There’s no practical solution to fixing this broken system. Training and audits can make improvements, but there are too many individuals in too many different agencies and jurisdictions to ensure that all data is reported back accurately. While there are issues with the database reporting, it’s certainly better than nothing.